Tag Archives: Adaptations

Off the Page – Watchmen

Comic books have been an especially reliable source of material for Hollywood these days.  Marvel and DC have been in a heated battle for box office supremacy, with their collection of heroes and rogues turning into the matinee idols of our current modern age.  And sure, there is a lot to draw from given the countless amount of stories that have been written for the comic medium for nearly a century now.  It wasn’t until recently, when Marvel took upon developing their cinematic universe, that comic book movies resulted in a business model that has generated billions of dollars in grosses.  Now, comic book movies are mainstream, with even the most obscure of comic characters like Hawkeye or Rocket Raccoon become household names.  The downside of this is that comic book movies tend to become formulaic as a result; with studios wanting to take fewer risks as they invest more and more money into these potential blockbusters.  What this leads to is an increasing disconnect between what we see on the big screen and what we usually find on the page from the original source comics.  Comic books live by their own set of standards, and it’s usually a lot more open to challenging and evocative stories and characters.  There’s usually a lot more violence, sex, and profanity found in even some of your standard trade comics, and avenues taken by some of the most popular charcters that you wouldn’t normally see them do in the movies.  Comic fans usually embrace these riskier stories, and they hold the film adaptations to a higher standard as a result.  Filmmakers find many interesting ways to work around the risks of adapting some of the more problematic comics by making movies more inspired by the comic books instead of making straightforward translations; Marvel’s recent Civil War is a perfect example of this.  But, when the source comic is as highly acclaimed and renowned as a single piece, as many graphic novels are, the liberties taken tend to become more of a problem.

There is a significant difference between what we see as a comic book and as a graphic novel.   Comic books are short form stories, sometimes tied together in a serial fashion,  meant to be consumed by the audience as quick, action packed entertainment.  Graphic novels on the other hand are developed as deeper, long form stories that are often about headier subjects.  Essentially, they are novels told through comic strips.  Many of the most beloved graphic novels have taken on stories that you would never see on you average comic book stand, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which re-imagines the horrors of the Holocaust with Nazi cats and Jewish mice; or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which portrays an autobiographical tale of the author’s coming of age in Iran in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution.  But perhaps the most prolific graphic novelist of all time is English writer Alan Moore.  Praised for his often revolutionary and provocative style, Moore’s body of work has been a huge influence of the medium as a whole.  Moore’s heyday in comic writing was in the 1980’s, where he not only excelled with his own original work, but also crafted some of the most celebrated stories ever for icons such as Batman (The Killing Joke) and Superman (For the Man Who Has Everything).  His more political works, however, are the novels he’s best known for, such as V for Vendetta. Naturally, with a body of work as celebrated as his, it was inevitable that Hollywood would come calling.  What is interesting about Moore’s approach to film adaptations of his own work is that he is both the most accommodating and the least cooperative of authors.  He permits filmmakers to adapt his work, but he always refuses to take part in their making, even refusing any screen credit.  This leaves the people responsible for bringing his work to life with the extra responsibility of doing it justice because they have to work without the guidance and approval of Moore himself.  And perhaps the film adaptation that presented the hardest challenge to date was of Moore’s iconic 12-part behemoth, Watchmen (2009).

“We are all puppets, Laurie.  I’m just the puppet who can see the strings.”

The creation of a Watchmen movie was no easy feat.  Developed for years after the publication of Moore’s novel, Watchmen saw many interested parties come and go.  Even Terry Gilliam of Monty Python and Time Bandits fame seriously considered adapting the comic, until he abandoned it after famously stating that he thought that the novel was un-filmable.   Some serious consideration of an epic TV miniseries on one of the cable networks was also considered until eventually Warner Brothers and DC comics (the publisher of Watchmen) landed on a screen adaptation that they were pleased with.  Up until this point, screen adaptations of Moore’s novels had been mixed; from good (From Hell), to mediocre (the Wachowski’s V for Vendetta), to just outright bad (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).  But critical praise for DC’s The Dark Knight (2008), which was heavily inspired by The Killing Joke in it’s portrayal of the Joker, convinced Warner Brothers to take the risk of adapting Alan Moore’s epic.  There was only one crucial issue; who would they get to commit to such an undertaking.  They found their director in Zack Snyder, who had just recently received raves for his work adapting another famous graphic novel, Frank Miller’s 300, with almost obsessive faithfulness to the original comic.  By giving an exact page to screen translation, and done in an economical way (filmed against green screens with CGI rendered environments), Snyder had gained the confidence of studio brass with his work on 300, and it was believed that his same style of film-making would carry Watchmen through to the end.  But, being faithful visually to the graphic novel is much different than being faithful to it as a narrative.  What resulted was a mixed bag of a movie where some things worked and a lot of other stuff just didn’t.  You would think it would be easy to just carry over the comic pages like a storyboard for a movie, but adaptations are more complex than that, and the movie Watchmen provides an interesting examination into how such a translation can work.

“This city is afraid of me… I’ve see its true face.”

The big problem with adapting a novel like Watchmen is just the overwhelming mass of story.  Watchmen was published in 12 separate issues over a year between 1986-87, and then compiled together later as a complete book.  And each individual issue has enough story to fill an entire hour worth of screen-time.  The story covers much of the themes that has informed most of Alan Moore’s work, which is the deconstruction of the super hero mythos, and what it means to be a hero, and where violence is justified for the greater good of humanity.  Watchmen is the most overt statement made by Moore about all these issues, and it’s done with quite a compelling story.  The novel let’s us follow different generation of masked vigilantes known as the “Watchmen,” whose heydays have long passed them by and are now working outside of the law for what they believe is for the best of society.  The only problem is that their methods are increasingly problematic and do more harm than good, making them social pariahs.  The book takes it’s title from the classic Latin phrase, “Quis cutodiet ipsos custodes?” or “Who watches the Watchmen?”  It’s a story that calls into question where authority lies, and what do we do when power is unchecked.  This is reflected in varying degrees through the flawed characters within the story; the by the book Night Owl, the emotionally broken Silk Spectre, the autocratic Ozymandias, the nihilistic Rorschach, the manic Comedian, and the ethereal Dr. Manhattan.  Each of these characters is brought to moral crossroads through the actions they take and the novel does an exceptional job of devoting enough time to understanding who these characters are and what forces both external and internal made them who they are.  It’s an exploration of personal and societal dramas that you can’t possibly work entirely into a two to three hour run-time without losing a lot in translation.

I think what plagued the Watchmen movie the most was the fact that it was limited by the confines of cinema.  Even with a nearly three hour run time, Watchmen still feels like it just never breaks past the surface.  It’s presenting the story, but it never delves any deeper.  A lot of the story’s themes had to be streamlined and character moments dropped in favor of more action oriented scenes, which studios tend to value more.  As a result, we get a movie that has the look of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, but doesn’t have the same emotional impact, or is as thought-provoking.  Some of the edits were understandable, like the comic within the comic Tales of the Black Freighter, which was meant to serve as a parallel fable to underline the psyche of some of what the main characters were going through.  You lose some of the introspection without the Black Freighter, but you gain better pacing as a result.  Other things cut from the story prove far more problematic, especially the look into the history of the Watchmen.  We learn so little about the founding members, and the ones we do meet, including the original Night Owl and Silk Spectre, are so ill-defined that they are no where near as interesting as they are in the comics.  This makes one of the novel’s most shocking moments, the murder of Hollis Mason (the first Night Owl) feel sadly weak in the film, because we are so little invested in his story. The film’s socio-political message also gets short-changed in the translation, with Cold War politics taking a back seat most of the time, and questions of misuses of authority becoming less important than watching the main characters kick ass throughout the movie.  That, in of itself, is the biggest insult to Alan Moore’s story, because it misses the point of how the people behind the masks are imperfect people and that their judgments are just as flawed as anyone else’s, making their authority all the more problematic.  When you take those same characters and given them choreographed fight scenes that make them look cool, you’ve kinda lost the narrative.

“I didn’t mind being the smartest man in the world.  I just wish it wasn’t this one.”

Not everything about this movie is a failure though.  You can tell that the filmmakers do have an appreciation for the novel, and the faithful adherence to the symbols and iconic images within the novel help to make it at least recognizable as an adaptation of the story.  Can’t say the same about anything in The League of Extraordinary Gentelmen (2003).  Where the movie also succeeds surprisingly well is in the cast, at least for the most part.  In particular, the movie does deserve credit for it’s perfect casting of Rorschach.  Character actor Jackie Earle Haley looks like he was born to play the role, and he takes full command of every scene he is in.  His Rorschach is Moore’s creation come to life in every way, complete with the harsh raspy voice and volatile personality.  The iconic mask is also really well executed in the movie, with the inkblot shape constantly changing form throughout the movie.  But the biggest surprise is how well the movie portrays Dr. Manhattan.  The blue skinned, god-like super being known as Dr. Manhattan may have been the reason why other filmmakers abandoned the project, because he is such a difficult character to translate to the screen.  The comic even differentiates him from the others by making his speech bubble unique in appearance.  Casting actor Billy Crudup in the role may have been an unusual choice, but with a calm, scientific tone of voice, his performance actually works amazingly well.  I’ve always wondered what Dr. Manhattan would sound like, and Crudup’s understated delivery just feels right.  A person with unlimited power would speak in that matter of fact, reserved kind of way.  The motion capture animation of the character also is some of the movie’s best effects work.  Patrick Wilson and Malin Akerman are serviceable as Night Owl and Silk Spectre respectively, but nothing special.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan also shines in his brief moments as The Comedian.  If there is a disappointment at all in the cast, it’s Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, who just feels flat and uninterested as the arrogant antagonist of the story.

The movie and the book also have the glaring difference of very contrasting ideas about how to use the visuals to tell their story.  Zack Snyder has his many problems as a storyteller, but no one can take away his status as a strong filmmaker.  He is indeed capable of delivering some beautifully composed images in his films, and he does have a strong grasp on how to best use extensive visual effects in his movies.  However, he also has the reputation of putting too much emphasis on visuals and not enough in the story, making the former feel more hollow as a result.  His direction works best with something like 300 (2007), which is a story made for the sole purpose of showing off the visuals and little more.  Watchmen on the other hand puts much more emphasis on the story.  While artist Dave Gibbons does provide some amazing visuals in the story, like Dr. Manhattan’s clockwork tower on Mars or the Comedian’s bloody demise, his artwork is much more in the service of Moore’s text and less meant to be it’s own thing.  Most of Watchmen‘s panels look no more different than your average comic, and that’s intentional.  Moore and Gibbons were making a critique of the super hero genre made within the same style.  Snyder dispenses with this idea and flourishes his film with his own excessive style, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.  Dr. Manhattan’s rebirth is adequately realized on screen in a stunning, epic moment, and so is the realization of his tower.  Where the movie does loose some luster is in the depiction of Ozymandias’ fortress in the Antarctic.  What should have been a stunning contrast between the warm glow of the inside of the fortress and the harsh coldness outside is unfortunately lost through Zack Snyder’s muted color palette.  It’s the point in the movie that felt the most lacking to me compared with what was on the page, and considering that this is where the film’s climax takes place, it increases the unsatisfactory response to the movie as a whole.  Was Zack Snyder the wrong choice of director?  Well, he wasn’t a great choice, but considering how few others would even attempt this adaptation, I suppose he’s the best that this movie could’ve hoped for.

“What happened to the American Dream?  It came true!  You’re lookin’ at it.”

What the movie Watchmen shows us is that even something that seems destined for the silver screen in a visual medium like comics and graphic novels doesn’t always guarantee a successful adaptation.  In many ways, graphic novels are even harder to translate because the visual realization of the story is already there, making it harder for a movie to live up to that.  Alan Moore’s magnum opus is celebrated both as a critique of the super hero genre, and as a perfect representation of the genre itself.  It’s harrowing as much as it is provocative, and it has iconic characters that anyone working in the comic medium would love to have for their own.  In it’s thirty years, Watchmen has remained a high water mark in its field and still to this day is one of the best-selling graphic novels of all time.  I don’t think any movie could ever have come close to capturing what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons captured on the page.  The movie exists purely as an example of how even the most earnest of adaptations can fail to capture the same kind of impact.  Was it necessary?  Well, you couldn’t expect for DC and Warner Bros. to just sit on the property.  The fact that Watchmen is not an incomprehensible mess overall is I guess a sign of some accomplishment.  It did nail some of the characterizations, and the fact that so much work went into at least preserving the imagery of what was on the page is worth something.  Much like Ozymandias, Zack Snyder took the unenviable burden of taking a job that would result in nothing but a harsh response, so that no one else would have to get their hands bloody in the aftermath.  He does add some nice new flourishes, including an outstanding opening credits sequence, but of his many other choices just seemed contradictory to what the story actually needed.  Graphic novels are by no means untouchable as sources for film adaptations, but the pressure to do them justice is almost always never worth the risk.  As Watchmen shows us, sometimes a story can be fully realized before Hollywood can ever get it’s hands on it, and any other attempt at it will always have to live up to a different standard.

“Rorschach’s Journal: October 12th, 1985.  Tonight, a comedian died in New York.”

Off the Page – Frankenstein


With Halloween once again around the corner, it’s time again that we look at some of the season’s most notable icons.  Monsters and ghouls are just as much associated with the Halloween holiday as Santa Claus is with Christmas.  They are the easy go to ideas for costumes every year, and any visit to your local grocery store or mall at this time will almost always feature some kind of holiday branding featuring one or two of these characters.  But, the interesting thing about the most famous of these iconic characters is that most of them were established out of the same unlikely source.  Unlike Santa Claus, whose origins begin as a real life saint who has been re-imagined into the mythical figure we know today, or the Easter Bunny whose origins come out of folklore, Halloween’s gallery of rogues originated from the world of 19th century literature.  Not only that, but many of them were created during the same literary movement; a pre-Victorian style emphasizing tales of the grim and unnatural known as Gothic.  Some of the most notable authors of the era all contributed to this movement, and created some of the most memorable monsters that continue to remain popular to this day.  Bram Stoker revolutionized the concept of vampirism with his now iconic villain Count Dracula; Robert Louis Stevenson gave us the psychological horror story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; H.G. Wells explored the spectral threat of the unseen with his Invisible Man; and even more earthbound authors like Charles Dickens would delve now and again into Gothic themes and characters.  But, perhaps the most unlikely source of one of the Halloween season’s most iconic characters was young Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who brought the brutish Frankenstein monster to the world.

Mary Shelley was an unlikely Gothic author for her time, and one that no one could believe had a monster like Frankenstein within her imagination.  The daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley seemed destined to always be an author in her own right.  Her early writing primarily focused on recounting her travels across Europe, with her travelogues becoming valuable guides for her readers.  But, on a trip to Switzerland in 1814, she heard stories from some of the locals of peculiar scientific experiments being conducted by some of the local lords; mostly harmless, but nevertheless mysterious.  From this, Mary conceived the story of an experiment gone horribly wrong, creating a monster that would go on to haunt it’s creator.  Over the next few years, she wrote out what would become the novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818).  It was one of the earliest works of the Gothic movement to become an immediate success, and many argue that it was one that was largely responsible for defining the genre as a whole.  In fact, it’s often seen as a precursor to all the other monster characters that I mentioned before.  So shocking it was when first published, that Mary Shelley had to remain anonymous as the author for quite some time.  But, since then she has become a much celebrated figure in Gothic literature.  Though her work was largely a product of it’s time, it has since captured the imagination of the world for nearly two centuries now, with it’s underlying themes of creation, identity, and male hubris.  And these themes, along with the iconic image of the monster himself, naturally was too good to pass up once it reached Hollywood.  In 1931, Universal Pictures delivered what is now one of the most celebrated adaptations of Shelley’s novel, as well as establishing the modern visual interpretation of the monster.  In many ways, the movie Frankenstein is a whole different creature from the novel it’s based on, and yet it stays true to it’s Gothic origins and presents a whole new set of sub-textual meaning behind it.  By comparing the novel and the movie, we can see some interesting results of how the myth has evolved over time.


“Think of it.  The brain of a dead man waiting to live again in a body I made with my own hands.”

Universal’s Frankenstein, like the novel that inspired it, redefined it’s genre and influenced it for many years to come.  Directed by James Whale, the movie took inspiration from  German Expressionism that became popular during the late Silent Era of cinema, using shadows and light and off-kilter art direction to convey psychological terror to the audience.  In addition, the movie also added a definite Hollywood spin on the story.  Instead of the conflicted Victor Frankenstein of the novel, we get Dr. Henry Frankenstein, a traditional Hollywood protagonist (played by Colin Clive), seeking to resolve the problem he’s created in the most humane way possible.  Hollywood’s Dr. Frankenstein is far different in that respect than the more weaselly Victor of the novel, who spends the entire story running away from his folly as opposed to resolving it.  It’s a big difference between the two versions, but not necessarily one that ruins the story.  The movie is attempting to do something different with the characters, giving the plot a much more rounded, good versus evil confrontation.  Mary Shelley’s take on the characters delivers a much more socially conscious message, which is the to explore the arrogance of a male dominated society.  Delivering on her own feminist ideals, some of which were quite radical for her time, Shelley points out that Victor’s own arrogance manifested itself in the creation of the monster and that his weakness is defined by the way that way he denies his own folly.  Shelley was very critical of the Romantics of the Enlightenment movement, whom she believed carried this same kind of chauvinistic arrogance as Victor, believing that power through revolutionary thoughts and ideas could lead to a more utopian world.  Shelley believed that such a notion was careless, because revolutionary concepts could also lead to disastrous results if reason and caution were left out.  She saw this as a primarily male-centric shortcoming, and she used the misguided Victor as a representation of this.


“It’s moving.  It’s alive. It’s alive. It’s ALIVE.  Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”

But the movie is less concerned with Victor/ Henry’s story and instead focuses much more on the monster itself.  It’s easy to see why.  Universal Pictures wanted to define it’s studios with a definitive horror icon, and Frankenstein fit that bill perfectly.  Released at the same time as Dracula (1931), Hollywood finally defined the style of horror that would become a staple of the industry with these two iconic films.  And like Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance as the Count, the portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster would become the standard for years to come.  Boris Karloff portrayed the titular monster in a magnificent and surprisingly nuanced way.  Instead of being just the lumbering giant that most other actors would’ve portrayed him as, Karloff brings a surprising amount of humanity to the creature, showing him to have childlike wonder about the world around him in addition to the carnal instincts that make him a menace.  There’s a fantastic scene midway through the film where the monster encounters a little girl playing along the shore of a lake.  Instinct tells him that the child is not a threat and the two play innocently for a moment, throwing flowers into the water.  Of course, the uneducated monster doesn’t understand the difference between flowers and children yet, and he tosses the little girl into the water as part of this game, not knowing that he in fact killed her in the process.  It’s a scene like that which shows the depths of the character perfectly; a monster guided by emotion rather than reason, doomed to be a monster because of the lack of humanity that his creator has shown to him.  At the same time, Karloff does make the monster frightening on screen.  When he strangles his victims, you really get a sense of the power of this creature and how it can be a menace.

The image of the creature is definitely something that the movie contributed to the character.  In many ways, it’s true to Mary Shelley’s image, and yet very different.  Shelley’s monster is indeed larger than the average man like the film version, but her creation is in many ways more grotesque.  Her monster is made up of stitched up skin; yellow and translucent, and barely concealing the blood vessels and muscle tissue underneath.  He also has yellow and red eyes, as well as long pitch black hair and black lips.  It’s an image that immediately frightens away Victor after he brings the creature to life and makes him instantly regret his actions.  The movie’s creature is obviously more refined due to Hollywood standards, but nevertheless distinctive.  Huge and lumbering, he also is defined by his flat topped cranium as well as bolts sticking out of his neck.  This particular image of the creature, as Boris Karloff portrayed him, has since become the definitive look of the creature, through all subsequent interpretations.  Anytime you see Frankenstein represented today, it’s based off of this version, and not the yellow skinned monster of the novel.  The green tinged skin color has also been given to the creature over the years, which may date back to behind the scenes documentation of Karloff’s make-up for the black and white film, or it could have come from one of the pop culture spin-offs that took inspiration from the character; the TV series The Munsters for example.  Regardless, the image of the monster is the movie’s biggest contribution to the legacy of the story, but that in itself remains true to the theme of the story.  The movie and the book are about the foolish attempts of human beings to take control of their own destinies and command nature itself, and the unexpected ways that the monster has changed over the years is proof that there is no certainty with regards to how our creations in life will withstand the test of time.  Time has even given the name of Frankenstein over to the creature itself, and not to his misguided creator, something that I don’t think Shelley could’ve foreseen.


“Crazy am I?  We’ll see whether I’m crazy or not.”

But, where the novel and the movie offer the most interesting contrast is in the different ways they deliver on the themes of identity and where one’s place is in the world.  Shelley’s main emphasis with her story was looking at the role that man’s relationship with nature plays in the error of their ways.  Her novel begins with a passage from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, which says, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me man?  Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?”  Along with the subtitle of The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley emphasizes that her story is all about asking why life exists with the creation not  knowing the intentions of it’s creator.  Victor, like Prometheus in Greek Mythology, defies the intended order of things just to see how his experiments will take hold, but never looks to what those consequences might be.  The creature, on the other hand, embodies the chaotic results of creation with a will all it’s own.  In the novel, the creature tries to find his own way in the world, separated from his absent creator.  He learns to speak and read all on his own, observing other humans from afar, and yet cannot make use of any of it because of his unnatural existence that makes him a monster to everyone else.  When he confronts Victor in the novel, he says that he’s the “Adam of you design,” referring back to the biblical first man, whose life is also recounted in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  It’s a critical examination of the conflict between man and God, with the creature not understanding why Victor gave him nothing but life.  Every useful thing he has is wasted because there was nothing to guide him towards a human existence.  As a result, the creature seeks nothing more than to destroy his creator, unless he gives him more of a natural existence, namely, to repeat the experiment again so that he can have a mate.  By refusing to repeat his past folly, the monster than haunts Victor, chasing him across multiple borders and even far North into the Arctic.  Like his literary predecessors, Victor attempts to play the role of God, and is undone by his own creation.

The movie on the other hand deals with identity in a different way.  The creature never quite grows out of his instinctual brutality, but this too is indicative of the neglect of his creator.  But, what James Whale emphasizes in his movie is a sense of the creature becoming a victim of his own status of an outsider.  Though it’s hard to say if Whale purposefully changed the story to suit this theme, but I feel like there was more than a little personal investment that the filmmaker put into the portrayal of the character in his story.  James Whale was one of the first openly homosexual filmmakers working in Hollywood, and it was something he struggled with for most of his life, professionally and personally.  His final tortuous years led to his untimely suicide, which were both dramatized in the film Gods and Monsters (1998), featuring Ian McKellan as Whale.  Though still closeted at the time, I believe that some of Whale’s own struggles manifested their way onto the screen with the way that the creature is hunted down in the movie.  Here you have a character who is shunned, condemned, and ultimately hunted down for merely being who he is.  It’s only the innocent and un-corrupted that give him any bit of compassion, like the girl playing with her flowers.  Albeit, it’s a bit harsh for someone to equate their own sexuality with the manifestation of a monster, but what I think Whale wanted to emphasize with his movie was how reacting to the monster also created a monstrous effect in society as a whole.  The movie concludes with the creature cornered in a decrepit old windmill, torched alive by angry villagers seeking to destroy him.  This plays into a fear that I’m sure James Whale probably had himself; being cornered by angry mobs of people who saw what he was as monstrous too.  The only reason that the monster acts the way he does is because of the mistreatment that’s been directed his own way; a misfit whose only crime is living.  I think that’s why the role of the creature is much more emphasized in Whale’s film, because it the character appealed far more to the issues that were important to him.  In Whale’s world, a lack of identity makes you just as much of a victim as it does a monster, and sometimes society as a whole can be the true monster.


“You have created a monster, and it will destroy you!”

Both the novel and the movie are very different creatures, but both are exceptional in their own right.  Mary Shelley’s novel defined the Gothic style and would go on to inspire all sorts of classics in the genre.  It could even be said that Frankenstein invented science fiction, because it was the first popular story written during the age of scientific discovery during the early 19th Enlightenment period.  All the wonders of the pre-Victorian and late-Victorian age were developed within the shadow of Frankenstein, and her novel proved to be an effective cautionary tale of taking experimentation too far and not dealing with the consequences of unchecked industrialization.  The movie, likewise, would go on to influence it’s own genre, becoming the definitive Hollywood monster movie.  Both also offer interesting insights into human behavior and how man’s relationship to nature is a volatile one.  Shelley’s novel gives an interesting insight into man’s own arrogance leads to self-destructive ends, while Whale’s movie establishes the interesting idea that intolerance itself creates an endless circle of violence, some of which leads to own own self-destruction.  Regardless of the different interpretations that each made, they have nevertheless made an unexpected icon out of it’s unforgettable monster.  Boris Karloff’s performance as the monster is especially a great one, and it’s because of him that I think the story continues to remain popular to this day.  It’s interesting to think that the oldest of these Halloween season icons is also the one who feels the most modern.  It’s a testament to the effectiveness of Mary Shelley’s imagination, where she was able to dream up a monster who would withstand the test of time and in a way, become timeless.  Whether he’s meeting his bride for the first time, or scaring off Abbot and Costello and Scooby Doo, or even being the mascot of a breakfast cereal, Frankenstein is an indispensable icon of the Halloween season, and one one whose resurrection will continue again and again.


“Whose life was one of brutality, violence, and murder.”

Off the Page – Heart of Darkness

apocalypse now

When Hollywood looks to adapt a popular book or series of books into a film, they often do so in three separate ways; they either translate it directly from page to screen, or they keep the story but change parts to make it more cinematic, or they just disregard the book entirely and use the title and premise only.  Most adaptations stay pretty faithful to the original source, but you’ll find quite a few that fall into the middle category.  And this is merely due to the fact that there are some books that are just un-filmable as they are on the page.  What works in prose doesn’t always work on screen, so it takes a few inspired filmmakers out there to figure out how to make the translations work in the visual medium.  Some of the most interesting examples of adaptations that take liberties with their source materials are the ones that transplant the characters and setting of the original story into a different time and place altogether, and still maintain the essence of the original story.  Writer and Director Amy Heckerling managed to successfully transplant the classy high society of Victorian England from the novel Emma into the modern excess of Beverly Hills in the movie Clueless (1995).  West Side Story took Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and brought it into streets of New York City.  But perhaps the most striking re-appropriation of a classic novel into a new setting  was the adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness into the Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now (1979), directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Heart of Darkness is one of the most highly influential novels of the early 20th century, becoming one of the earliest examples of modernist literature.  Joseph Conrad’s book is a relatively short read (just a little under 100 pages), but it is heavy in theme and introspection.  The story is told from the point of view of Captain Marlow, as he recounts his experiences sailing up the Congo River into the heart of the African continent in search of a renegade Ivory trader named Kurtz.  As Marlow heads deeper into the jungle, he encounters more and more strange sights and perilous dangers, and all the while he learns more and more second hand accounts of this man Kurtz who has become something of a demigod to the natives out there in the wilderness.  When he finally finds Kurtz, the mythical man is deathly ill and a shell of his former self.  Marlow no longer fears the man, but instead pities him and seeks to bring him back to civilization.  Kurtz however dies before the journey can begin, his final words being, “The Horror. The Horror.”  Marlow doesn’t know what he means until he begins to go through Kurtz’s papers and uncovers the true insanity that the isolation in the jungle brought to him.  Heart of Darkness works as both a fascinating psychological character study as well as a commentary on colonialism.  The story is so much more than a journey into the wild frontier; it’s also a study of man’s effect on the world, the limits to which one is pushed to in extreme circumstances, as well as the disconnect between how things are viewed by the civilized and the uncivilized.  The complexity of it’s themes and the vividness of it’s imagery has inspired many artists since, such as poets like T.S. Eliot, who quoted Heart of Darkness in his poem “The Hollow Men.”  And of course, filmmakers found inspiration in Conrad’s writing as well, though in less direct ways.

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“Who’s in charge here?” “Ain’t you?”

You can see some of the ingredients of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the films of John Huston’s The African Queen (1951), Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), and even to some extant in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993).  But, a fully faithful adaptation by Hollywood had always been elusive.  Many filmmakers tried, including Orson Welles, but nobody could ever make it work out.  It’s perhaps because of the bleakness of Conrad’s novel, which wouldn’t work so well in an industry that demands happy resolutions to their stories.  It wasn’t until a young film student from USC named John Milius took up the challenge of adapting Heart of Darkness.  According to the making of documentary on the Apocalypse Now home video release, Milius was inspired to tackle the story after his professor proclaimed that the book was un-filmable, stating, ” If Welles couldn’t do it, than nobody can.”  Fortunately for Milius, there was a real world event going on that echoed the themes and visuals of Conrad’s novel and that was the Vietnam War.  Milius saw the mayhem and carnage of that conflict broadcast nearly daily on the news and the political upheaval that resulted from it and found that moral ambiquity of Conrad’s story had the same resonance with what was happening in Vietnam.  So, even before graduating from college, Milius began the first draft of what would become Apocalypse Now.  He initially wanted his fellow USC classmate George Lucas to direct, but eventually the script found it’s way to Francis Ford Coppola, who helped Milius with the final drafting of the script.  The conflict ended before cameras started rolling, but the experience was still fresh in people’s minds, and as we would soon learn, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness would become more relevant to the modern world than anyone would’ve imagined.

It should be noted that Apocalypse Now is not a direct translation of the novel to the screen, apart from the obvious change in setting.  Milius and Coppola’s adaptation actually doesn’t start to resemble Conrad’s novel until the very final act.  For the first 2/3 of the movie, the movie is more of a series of vignettes of wartime experiences that believably would’ve happened during the Vietnam conflict, and in some cases were directly inspired by real accounts.  Neither Coppola nor Milius served in Vietnam (Coppola due to his conscientious objection and Milius due to his health), but they determined to create a sense of what the actual war must of been like to the soldiers who fought it.  And the reality was that with such a divisive, unclear reason as to why American soldiers were fighting in the war in the first place, being shipped out to Vietnam really did in fact feel like a journey into the “Heart of Darkness.” The experience took a psychological toll on those who served, seeing the futility of their missions and oftentimes inhumane acts they would have to perform, all for something that few ever believed in.  The book Heart of Darkness dealt with some of the same themes, but did so with a critical eye towards the dehumanizing policies of colonization in uncivilized parts of the world such as Africa.  Like Marlow’s brushes with the wilds of Africa, the journey for the soldiers in  Apocalypse Now is no less a surreal clash between the known and unknown worlds, and the dehumanizing effects of that conflict.  Overall, the themes remain in tact throughout the film’s adaptation and the use of Vietnam as the setting couldn’t have been more perfect for the translation.

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“I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.”

One of the criticisms that has followed the novel over the years is the viewed racist tone of Conrad’s depiction of the African natives.   The natives are largely depersonalized savages in Conrad’s novel, and many critics have argued that this is representative of a colonialist’s view of different cultures, where because they are not civilized in the European fashion must mean that they are less than human.  While I do agree that Conrad’s depiction of the African natives is racially insensitive, at the same the novel points to their exploitation as the greater evil.  The book is strongly anti-colonial in it’s message, with Marlow making the argument whether it was the exposure to the the wilds of Africa that drove Kurtz mad, or was it the pressure of the colonial system being forced into a place it didn’t belong responsible for making the change in him.  Which asks the question, where is the true “Heart of Darkness;” in the civilized or uncivilized world.  Coppola and Milius wisely try their best not to dehumanize the Vietnamese people in their story by not shying away from the human toll that the conflict had on them.  The Sampan massacre scene in particular shows the brutality that the War brought upon those left helpless in the crossfire.  Another way that the movie addresses the racial undertones of the story is through the side-plot involving Colonel Kilgore (played brilliantly by Robert Duvall).  The character was entirely crafted for the film and perfectly represents the encroaching imperialism of military might in a land unable to fight against it.  Kilgore represents pure, disaffected exploitative greed in the form of someone who has the power to take what he wants, just because he can.  The entire ivory trade that Marlow interacts with in the books represents this too, but here in the movie, we see the system personified in someone maniacal enough to invade a village just because it has the best surfing beaches in the vicinity.  It’s a departure that really serves the film adaptation well in the end.

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“You’re neither.  You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect the bill.”

Coppola and Milius departed from the book to help reinforce the anti-colonization subtext of the novel, but what they faithfully translated directly from the book was also brilliantly handled.  The ultimate destination of Kurtz’s compound is practically lifted off of the page, and the enigmatic Kurtz is also faithfully brought to life, thanks in no small part to Marlon Brando’s iconic performance.  This wasn’t without issue, however.  Coppola had to deal with Brando arriving on set overweight and having not memorized any of his lines.  He hadn’t even read the novel itself, to which Coppola had to read it aloud to him before they started filming, in order for him to have context for the character.  Even still, Brando’s eccentricity translates perfectly into the character of Colonel Kurtz.  Like the Kurtz of Heart of Darkness, he is a man both feared and worshiped by those around him, and the journey to see him is like a journey delving into the madness that has made him what he is.  This is also represented perfectly in the film through the narration, provided by Martin Sheen in the role of Captain Willard (the film’s stand-in for Captain Marlow).  Like in the book, we dissect the conditions that created Kurtz through Willard’s own journey deeper into the jungle and see the continuing, un-explainable horrors that would’ve driven him mad.  As Willard arrives at the compound, he sees that Kurtz’s philosophies have turned all who come to him into his disciples, including a photojournalist who worships him like a God (played in a zany performance by Dennis Hopper).  In this, Willard doesn’t just see the manifestation of evil in his encounter with Colonel Kurtz, but also a scary reminder of the kind of dark figure he might become if he falls too deep into this world.  That in essence is what Joseph Conrad’s book was meant to explore, which is the internal conflict of man’s struggle with his own baser instincts.  But, the question he posed in the book was whether it was the wilderness that brought it out of Kurtz or did it just naturally come through on it’s own.

The dichotomy between Kurtz and Marlow in the book translates quite well into the film, but is actually dealt with in a different way.  In many ways, the philosophies of both men are complete opposites and yet they find themselves agreeing on most things.  Kurtz is of a hard-line, militaristic mind while Marlow is of a more civilized, pacifist one.  It seems only natural that these two character types would translate so well into a wartime setting.  In the movie, Willard seems to admire Kurtz for his bucking of the system that he recognizes is broken and getting worse, and yet he can’t bring himself to join his crusade knowing the atrocities that Kurtz and his militia have committed.  In the movie, he states, “Part of me was afraid of what I would find and what I would do when I got there.  I knew the risks, or imagined I knew.  But, the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him.”  There is an understanding between both Kurtz and Willard about what the War has turned them into, and that neither is ever going to change the other’s mind.  It should be noted that a difference in the translation was that in the novel, Marlow is sent to save Kurtz, but in the movie, Willard is charged with killing him.  Kurtz’s fate is the same in both movies, but the conditions of his death changes the outcome somewhat.  In the novel, you get the sense that Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz will lead him down a different outlook on the whole practice of colonization, with maybe an eye towards fighting against the system in response.  The movie is a little more ambiguous.  Willard savagely murders Kurtz and leaves the compound and all of Kurtz’s followers behind.  We don’t know what happens to him after he’s completed his mission.  Is he changed for good or bad?  Will he become another Kurtz himself?  It’s a morally ambiguous finale that perfectly understates the insanity of Vietnam, and how no one left the conflict a better person than when they entered it.  It’s an interesting spin on the character dynamics found in the original book to give it an extra meaning.

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“‘ Never get out of the boat.’ Absolutely goddamn right!  Unless you were goin’ all the way… Kurtz got off the boat.  He split from the whole f***ing program.”

You have to give a lot of credit to Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius for adapting the un-adaptable into a film.  The result has become one of the most beloved war movies ever made.  It wasn’t an easy task either.  The experience for both men often resembled the novel’s journey itself.  The film’s many production woes nearly caused it to be shut down, and Coppola was famously pulled off the set at one time by Paramount execs who were worried that he had lost control of the production.  Coppola and Milius’ own philosophical differences also led to story conflicts during the film’s development about which direction that the film should take, Coppola being more of a left-wing pacifist, and Milius more of a right-wing militarist (sound familiar?).  This would ultimately lead to a six year production cycle, three of which were spent just editing the film itself (which was constructed from a staggering million feet of film).  But, despite all this, Apocalypse Now exists and it is a masterpiece of film-making.  And amazingly, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is still recognizably ingrained in the entire movie.  Apocalypse Now is a perfect example of taking a novel, changing it original setting, and actually improving upon it’s overall theme.  Heart of Darkness truly was ahead of it’s time with it’s morally ambiguous characters and deep philosophical introspection.  It just makes more sense having those themes explored in the insane and surreal experience of the Vietnam War.  The movie is easily recommended, but I would also say that you should read the book too, despite the obviously outdated racial stereotypes.  Comparing the two is an interesting look into how different examinations on the same themes can work, and how finding the “Heart of Darkness” may be scarily closer and more common than one might think.

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“The Horror. The Horror.”

Off the Page – War of the Worlds

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One type of story element that has been popular to both literature and cinema has been the use of allegory.  An allegorical story has the benefit of addressing issues that affect the reader and the viewer in their present day, without ever being tied down by the restrictions of time or setting, or even reality.  A storyteller can be as fanciful as they want with their tale, but the truths behind it will still be familiar and will resonate with the audience.  Because allegory is an effective tool for addressing important issues, it’s often been used by authors and filmmakers alike to inject social and political messages into popular entertainment.  We may think we’re going to read a story about animals running a farm by themselves after the farmer has left, but instead, we are treated to a meditation on the rise of Stalinist totalitarianism.  We may think we’re watching Batman fighting the Joker, but instead we’re presented with an examination of the corrupting power of paranoia, and how it erodes our moral judgments.  No ones goes into these story-lines expecting to be given a lecture on larger issues, but we’re rewarded with thought provoking ideas that actually enrich the experience overall.  However, though allegory is useful for tackling universal issues, there comes a risk of having that same allegory unfortunately tied to the time and place that it was used.  Now, time does shine favorably on antiquated allegories, because it does cast light on ideas from the past and how storytellers observed the world that they lived in.  But, when one storyteller tries to take one allegorical story and re-purposes that into a different setting or time, well then you start to see problems in the adaptation.

One of the most interesting authors who used allegory to great effect in his work was H.G. Wells.  Wells, along with his contemporaries at the time (Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs) created for the most part what we know now as modern Science-Fiction.  But, while Verne wrote about the ingenuity and wonder of science, and Burroughs wrote about the fantastical and otherworldly aspect, Wells was much more interested in the dangers of science.  Wells was a political writer in addition to being a creative one, and he often sought to address larger societal issues in his writing.  But, what set him apart from other political writers was the fact that he always wrote with an eye towards popular entertainment.  When his work was published in the late Victorian period in England, people were far more interested in stories about adventure and exploration, and far less about social issues of the day.  So, with an eye towards allegory, Wells found a way to force these important issues of the day into the public eye by including them in the kinds of stories they would normally clamor for.  His best example of allegory disguised as popular entertainment would be the 1898 classic The War of the Worlds.  Yes it’s got monstrous aliens and tension filled horror that readers would have found engaging, but when you read deeper, you see the intent of what Wells was trying to say.  He lived in a world corrupt by the idea of Empire and exploiting the less fortunate for the benefit of those who had everything.  By flipping the concept on it’s head, and having the seemingly mighty Great Britain invaded by a superior, extra-terrestrial force, Wells was making his audience see their world in a different light.  It’s an allegory that fits it’s time well, but when adapted for another period, like in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation, you can see how an allegory’s effectiveness can change with it.

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“No one believed in the early years of the 21st century that our world was being watched by intelligence greater than our own.”

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds is a fascinating, if somewhat flawed adaptation of Wells classic novel.  In many ways, it retains a faithful adherence to the tension and paranoia of the original novel, and yet, some of that adherence ends up doing a disservice to the actual message that the director wanted to deliver in his movie.  What is fascinating however is how allegories from another time and place take on a whole new meaning when adapted into something else, and that’s the case with Spielberg’s film.  When H.G. Wells first wrote his novel, England was the dominant power in the world, with an Empire that included territory on every continent across the globe.  In his day, the notion of invasion from a superior power would have seemed foreign and purely in the realm of fiction, but Wells wanted to address this arrogance of such a notion in his novel and the foolish nature of viewing oneself as superior to others.  When Spielberg sought to tackle Wells classic story, England’s empire had long diminished and America had emerged in the years since as the world’s most powerful nation.  But, unlike when Wells had written his novel, in 2005, America was still reeling from the recent attacks of 9/11.  Though the country wasn’t attacked by a superior force akin to Wells’ Martians, it was still an attack that shook the foundations of our country and it’s a struggle that we have yet to shake off even today.  Spielberg adapted the story in a time when even the mighty could be brought low by outside forces, and in a sense, that’s where his adaptation actually gives a fresh new meaning to Wells’ tale.  According to Spielberg in the making of documentaries found on the War of the Worlds DVD, he wanted to create a vision of a refugee experience in America, where survivors of the alien invasion are forced to flee their homes and survive in an increasingly hostile world.  It’s something he says you don’t see in our society today, which is a concept close to Wells’ own intent.  Where Wells addressed a society arrogant in that they never believed they could be invaded by a superior force, Spielberg was addressing a society that felt apathetic towards refugees across the world because they too never thought it could happen here.

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“It’s the same everywhere – once the tripods begin to move, no more news comes out of that area.”

Now, with an adaptation, especially one that changes the time and setting of an original story, there obviously needs to be alterations made to both the plot and, specifically with this movie, the characters.  In this aspect, I actually believe that Spielberg did Wells one better.  Wells original novel was less interested in character development, and far more interested in describing the world in which they inhabit.  His main character isn’t even named in the novel, and it’s told entirely from his perspective.  In this case, it’s a presentation that suits Wells novel, because it allows the reader to better identify with the narrator and see the horrors of the alien invasion through a first person account.  It’s a presentation brilliantly re-imagined in Orson Welles legendary radio adaptation, which works because it’s another medium that allows for the audience to paint the picture in their own minds.  However, those same rules don’t apply to film, where we need characters with depth and personality in order to follow their story.  Spielberg and his writers Josh Friedman and David Koepp, created the entirely original character of Ray Ferrier to be the substitute for the nameless narrator.  In addition, they added a family dynamic to the story by having Ray (Tom Cruise) escaping the destruction around him by having his children Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin) in tow.  Though some of their family drama is cliched in the movie, it nevertheless gives the story a human face it desperately needs, and all credit is due to the cast for believably immersing themselves into the film’s situations.  Tom Cruise in particular manages to put his matinee idol status in check and conveys to us that he’s a broken man who’s desperately trying to stay strong through a perilous situation.  And the movie smartly keeps the story focused on their survival.  It’s not about grander geopolitical ramifications.  It’s about survival, and that fits much better into Spielberg’s refugee allegory.

But, though Spielberg changes the human perspective and creates a whole new story-line with his new main characters, it doesn’t mean that Wells’ story is unrecognizable either.  In fact, much of the actual invasion that takes up most of the movie is pulled directly out of the novel.  The Tripods themselves in particular are almost exactly as Wells envisioned them.  The only difference made about the invading force is their origin, and it’s an understandable change.  In Wells time, Mars was believed to have been an inhabitable world filled with Martian people (a concept that Edgar Rice Burroughs also shared in his John Carter series) and it made sense to him and his audience that an alien invasion could naturally come from our nearest celestial neighbor.  Of course, we now know that Mars is inhabitable, so Spielberg is more vague about where his aliens came from.  And, in the end, it really doesn’t matter.  The tension actually comes out of not quite knowing what’s going on and it’s a story point that serves well both the novel and the movie.  Spielberg almost relishes the overwhelming threat that the Tripod vessels pose to the characters, giving them the sense of scale that they deserve.  From the moment that the first Tripod rises out of the ground, it invokes a sense of true terror into the hearts of anyone who sees it.  And when it begins blasting people away with it’ s heat ray, it is truly shocking.  I think that it’s what makes Spielberg the best possible choice to adapt Wells work.  They both work in the realm of popular entertainment, but they also take in the gravity of their story-lines, and address the fantastical bits with the same seriousness that one would with a real life emergency.  The Tripod attacks are easily the highlights of the movie, and where Spielberg adapts Wells’ vision to it’s fullest potential.

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“This isn’t a war any more than there’s a war between men and maggots… This is an extermination.”

But, the problem with transplanting the setting of your allegorical story is that not all the pieces will translate quite as well outside of their original context.  For a lot of people, where the movie actually falters is in it’s later half, after it appears that Ray has lost his son Robbie in one of the attacks.  He and Rachel find shelter in a nearby farmhouse being occupied by a mysterious and somewhat unhinged man named Ogilvy (Tim Robbins).  It’s this scene in the basement that really breaks apart the audience reaction to this movie, from those who love it to those who hate it.  I’ll agree that it is a problematic stretch of the film because it completely shifts gears and slows the story down to a halt.  What was a harrowing adventure about staying alive amid almost certain death suddenly becomes a claustrophobic human drama where the danger becomes more internalized.  I don’t dislike the scene (the part where they hide from the alien probe is spectacularly staged), but it does feel out of place in the film.  But, it’s also strangely enough from the original novel, albeit condensed.  People tend to forget that Wells, like many other authors of the time, published his work in serial form, and War of the Worlds was released in two separate volumes.  His first volume portrayed the invasion; the second, the aftermath.  Spielberg tried to put the two together into one narrative, but the mashing together is very awkward and diminishes the effectiveness of both sides of the story.  More than anything, I think it’s the abruptness that became the problem.   The farmhouse is indeed where much of Spielberg’s allegory of post-9/11 paranoia comes into play, but it does so in detriment to the momentum of the action.  He could have indulged himself in more of the spectacle of mayhem, but he would have lost that crucial allegory in the process.

The film falters, but not for the sake of trying on Spielberg’s part, nor because of trying to force Wells’ novel into modern times.  Adaptations are just difficult to pull off, even when they are faithful and done with good intentions.  For most of the movie, Spielberg actually delivers on the thrills and the sense of awe, but then he ends up undermining the things that he was trying to accomplish within even the very next scene.  I think one of the biggest mistakes he made overall was actually showing us what the aliens looked like.  True, Wells did that as well in his novel, describing the Martians as spindly, grey skinned tri-ped creatures.  It’s fine to be descriptive on the page, but visualizing that on the big screen is different, and will likely please no one.  This movie, as well as the 1953 adaptation produced by George Pal, were at their best when the aliens remained hidden within their machines.  But, you take them out, and show them as the more vulnerable creatures that they are, you lose the menace that they pose.  What Wells wanted to show in his novel was that these aliens were superior to us in every way, and that this superiority is what made them malicious towards us.  It was his critique of the concept of Social Darwinism, which proclaimed that the strong were entitled to rule above others because it is natures will; a perversion of Darwin’s theory of evolution that would go on to inspire many despised philosophies like Eugenics and even Fascism.  By showing humans as the weak instead of the strong, he is able to make us look at how our own arrogance about our place in the world has driven us to do horrible things to those that we view as inferior.  It’s a concept that could have worked just as well in Spielberg’s adaptation, in a world shaken by Terrorism and how confronting an undefinable enemy has left many displaced and disillusioned, but that all goes away once we see the bizarre looking aliens who carry none of the menace that this story needs.  And it’s a strange underwhelming tactic used by someone who has been so good at creating menace out of non-human forces (the shark in Jaws or the raptors in Jurassic Park) in the past.

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“When it’s ready, my body will just push it out.”

While there are flaws, you can’t say that Spielberg and Cruise didn’t try their best to bring Wells’ classic to life in the 21st century.  When it does get it right, it does so in a spectacular way.  The Tripod alien death machines are hauntingly realized and could be among the most frightening things we’ve ever seen in any science fiction film.  Some of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s best work is in this movie, including the amazing ferry boat scene and the facade of the church being destroyed by the cracking earth beneath it.  I can also praise the unsettling music written by John Williams too.  But, despite high quality work done by all involved, you can’t help but think that the sum of what they had didn’t quite add up to what they wanted.  And some of the fault of that might be in the adaptation itself.  Wells novel was a product of it’s time, but also one that addressed many issues that we still deal with today.  Wells delivered us a harrowing vision of what it might be like to have our securities challenged by something that is greater than ourselves, and he did so in a narrow, claustrophobic point of view.  It works because it puts us into the shoes of a survivor and asks us to see how one has to live when they have nothing.  Spielberg tries to do that by constantly pushing his characters into harms way, but he ultimately undermines his message by rewarding his characters with a happy resolution.  The only time that it doesn’t make things so easy is when Ray must commit a murder to save his own child, but sadly, this character defining moment is underplayed.  And seriously, his son appearing at the end is one of the worst plot twists ever, and more than anything is an insult to what Wells intended.  But, apart from that, I do admire Spielberg’s attempt to find new allegorical meaning in War of the Worlds in the chaotic world that we find ourselves in.  It shows that Wells story was far more prescient and universal than he knew, and that a message worth saying can still find it’s place in blockbuster entertainment.

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“By a toll of a billion deaths, man had earned his immunity, his right to survive among this planet’s infinite organisms.  And that right is ours against all challenges.  For neither do men live nor die in vain.”

Off the Page – John Carter of Mars

It’s pretty well established that adaptations of popular literature to the big screen is a hard business, and today’s example is no exception.  In fact it is the epitome of how difficult it is. In my first article of this series, I detailed the translation of Stephen King’s The Shining, which was a case where a brilliant filmmaker dramatically altered a brilliant piece of writing and came out with something equally as brilliant. In my second article, I covered The Road, an example of filmmakers sticking closely to the text of Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece and coming up with something that was just okay. Now I’m going to tell you about a movie adaptation of a classic novel that proved to be an outright disaster, at least at the box office.   This of course is the failed big screen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ early twentieth century classic, John Carter of Mars.  John Carter (2012) was Walt Disney Pictures attempt to jump start a new big screen sci-fi franchise, one which already had a nearly hundred year long legacy behind it in literary circles, but once the movie made it to theaters, it was sadly met with indifference by critics and audiences, which did not bode well after Disney had spent a quarter of a billion dollars making the film.  Some have argued that the reason behind John Carter’s box office failure is because it had long become irrelevant over the many decades since the series was first published and that all of its many influences have since overtaken the original in notoriety. In this article, I will look at how the movie stands up to the original novel, and see exactly if it was a problem with the translation or if the original story was too out of date to become a hit with modern audiences again.

Although the story of John Carter of Mars may not be as fresh in everyone’s minds today, its influence has been widespread in both literature and in cinema.  The story first appeared in serial publications all the way back in 1912, written by an imaginative young American author named Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Burroughs’ serial, then titled Under the Moons of Mars, detailed the adventures of Sergeant John Carter, a former Confederate soldier who is magically transported to the planet Mars while on the run in the deserts of Arizona.   Once there, he learns that his strength and agility are increased ten fold because of Mars’ lower gravity and thinner atmosphere. His special abilities catch the attention of a tribe of tall, green-skinned warriors known as Tharks, who quickly adopt Carter into their clan.  Over time he learns their language and gains their trust, especially with regards to the Thark chieftain Tars Tarkas and his estranged daughter Sola.  In time he learns more about the different cultures of Mars, which the Martians call Barsoom. And John Carter learns that Barsoom is just barely clinging on to life, with the oceans dried up and only two major cities left on the entire planet, both of which are entangled in a civil war.  One is a city of scientific research known as Helium and the other is a mobile scavenger city called Zodanga.  The Tharks are a nomadic tribe who avoid contact with the red skinned human-like residents of the two cities, but conflict finds them when a Helium expedition team runs into a Thark encampment, which brings the Princess Dejah Thoris into John Carter’s life and soon brings the outsider into this global conflict.

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“When I saw you, I believed it was a sign… that something new can come into this world.”

A lot of John Carter’s plot may seem very familiar if your familiar with a lot of sci-if tropes and superhero origins.  But, it should be noted that John Carter of Mars actually predates most of what we know of science fiction today, so if anything what time has actually done to make people forget how revolutionary a piece of literature it was.  Along with his contemporaries across the pond, H.G. Welles and Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs was inventing what we know as the Science Fiction genre.  But while Verne was celebrating wonders of science in fantasy, and Welles was using science as a basis for social commentary and cautionary tales, Burroughs’ was using science as a basis for swashbuckling adventures. John Carter was mostly inspired by other larger than life heroes of the era like Zorro and Davy Crockett, only his adventures were taken into a more celestial setting, giving rise to new possibilities in adventure writing.  Burroughs would write 12 novels in total set on the world Barsoom, detailing the exploits of John Carter and his offspring. Not only that, but Burroughs also put so much effort and detail into his novel that he even crafted a dictionary detailing the rich vocabulary of Barsoom and its many cultures, a concept authors like J.R.R. Tolkien would later adopt through appendices and side stories connected to their novels.  Because of the enormous success of the John Carter books, there are decades worth of different works of literature and cinema that have either been influenced or have outright copied it over the years. Of course, the similarities to the origin of Superman are pretty obvious, swapping out a hero sent from Earth with a hero sent from the planet Krypton. But, there are also elements of John Carter’s story found in everything from Star Wars, to He-Man, to even James Cameron’s Avatar (2009).   So, why did it take so long for John Carter to make it to the big screen himself?

For the most part, it was just several cases of bad timing and filmmakers not finding the right angle on the story. Several attempts were made through the years to bring John Carter to the big screen.  Warner Brothers worked with Edgar Rice Burroughs directly to bring an animated version of the character to life in a project that would’ve predated Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) as the first full length animated feature.  Sadly, the project never took off, mainly due to budget concerns and all that remains of the project is demo reel recently discovered in the Edgar Rice Burroughs archives in Tarzana, California. Live action versions surfaced off and on over the years, including one in the 80’s directed by Die Hard (1988) helmer John McTiernan and starring Tom Cruise as the title character. Sadly, this two never gained traction.  Disney stepped in twice over the years, once in the 70’s and again in the 2000’s to get a John Carter movie made, and it wasn’t until the second time around that the film finally gained footing.  Part of Disney’s confidence in the project came from their successful collaboration with the Burroughs estate, adapting the author’s other popular character Tarzan into an animated film.  And with CGI becoming much more reliable, it seemed more possible to bring Burroughs’ vision of Barsoom to reality, magnificent creatures and all.  To undertake the adaptation, Disney gave directing duties to Andrew Stanton, an award winning animation director from Pixar, who had never directed a live action feature before. It was an unusual choice, but Stanton was a proven storyteller, with his enormously successful Finding Nemo (2003) and Wall-E (2008) earning huge raves. But, as was soon apparent, bringing John Carter to the big screen proved to be more difficult endeavor than anyone anticipated, and there is no easy answer as to why.

“I tell you truly, John Carter of Earth, there are no Gates of Iss.  They are not real.”

Opening in Spring 2012, John Carter struggled immediately at the box office, falling way short of it’s production budget and causing Disney to declare a huge shortfall for their company profits that year, leading to a write off.  And though part of the failure of the film falls upon the quality of the film itself, it’s not entirely to blame.  John Carter was a nightmare for Disney’s marketing department, leading to several title changes, until ultimately doing away with the “of Mars” moniker and just labeling it with the very bland sounding John Carter.  While the title didn’t help much, the main struggle was the fact that there was nothing here to distinguish John Carter from every other sci-fi film of the last half-century, which is ironic given that the John Carter novels are what introduced the world to the concept of science fiction.  As a result, John Carter became an unfortunate victim of it’s own legacy.  Too much time had come between the introduction of the character and his eventual appearance on the big screen, with the movie ultimately being released on the character’s centennial anniversary in 2012.  But, did the fault come from an outdated story-line?  Frankly, having read the first book on which this movie is based, I was astonished how little about it was dated.  Sure, some of the morals and racial undertones don’t quite fit today’s standards, but Edgar Rice Burroughs’ writing style is so timeless and easily comprehensible that it can be just as easily enjoyed today as it was when it was published 100 years ago.  The main problem is not the text, but the fact that it’s become too absorbed into everything else in science fiction, making it far too familiar to newer audiences.  Disney could have done something interesting with the text and make John Carter either a uniquely artistic interpretation of the source, or give the story a very modern twist that could help set it apart.  Instead, they went the safe route, and basically rip off all the other properties that John Carter had inspired, creating a mobius strip of mediocrity.

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“When I was little and we would look up at the stars, you would tell me of heroes whose glory was written in the sky.”

One big thing that was lost in translation between the book and the film was actually the character of John Carter himself.  In Burroughs’ original novels, we are treated to a first hand account from the main character himself, helping to put us right inside the mind of John Carter on his journey.  By doing this, Burroughs perfectly illustrates the wonders of Barsoom by putting the reader into the mind of the outsider, experiencing this new world first hand.  We also get to know the man John Carter much better this way, seeing him as a somewhat arrogant but still very courageous and cunning hero.  In the movie, that first person experience is minimized.  In the movie, Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch) recounts his story through his last will and testament to his beneficiary, Edgar Rice Burroughs (played in the film by Daryl Sabara).  It’s weird to see Burroughs himself depicted as a character in a movie based on his own creation, but it’s actually something they adapted correctly from the book.  From there, the movie has Burroughs reading the account of Carter’s journey, but once the flashback begins, the movie begins to fragment, moving away from the first person perspective.  This is unfortunately where the movie falters because by cutting away from Carter’s story to tell the larger political plot across Barsoom, we ultimately loose focus on the character.  And unfortunately, Taylor Kitsch is not a good enough actor to fill that charisma hole and make John Carter interesting.  Instead, he’s purely there to look good in the costume, which is sadly true for the rest of the cast.  Everyone, including some good actors in the cast like Dominic West, Mark Strong, and Bryan Cranston are purely in costume drama mode and hardly ever make an impression in the movie.  The only characters with a little personality in the film are the CGI animated Tharks, especially Tars Tarkas (with the voice of Willem Dafoe) who is by far the best realized character in the movie.  But, by trying to remove the focus off of the main hero, and tell the story in a more standardized way, it robs a little power away from John Carter’s character in the process.

A lot of the remaining problems with the movie, besides the bad timing of it’s release and the loss of focus on his character, is the fact that there is no passion behind it.  It seems like Disney put the film into production purely as an obligation, and the end result is a paint by numbers approach to epic film-making.  Andrew Stanton is a fine filmmaker and a brilliant storyteller, but he was clearly out of his element here.  Unfortunately, he was tasked with adapting a story that modern audiences were unfamiliar with, and yet also had this monumental legacy behind it.  Too much pressure was put upon his shoulders and all he could do was just ride out the storm.  Unfortunately, by just checking off the list of familiar story tropes, he was left with a film that lacked any resonance.  At best, he made a movie that looked pretty, but had no memorable dialogue, no distinguishable characters, and no sense of adventure.  But the task shouldn’t have been dealt with so lazily by Disney.  Burroughs’ novels are tailor made for the big screen and the only thing that was holding them back was the fact that technology couldn’t fully present Barsoom in the way it needed to be seen.  Disney held up that end, but they didn’t allow the story to define itself.  A large reason for that is because too many science-fiction films today have become action packed extravaganzas, and Disney didn’t want their film to feel too different.  Therefore, much of John Carter is filled with needless action set pieces that don’t advance the story in any way.  Only a standout scene in an arena where Carter fights Martian White Apes actually stands out, and that’s mainly because it comes straight from the source; and has of course been imitated in countless other sci-fi stories (the Rancor pit in Return of the Jedi for example).  Couple this with a lack of character development, and you’ve got a movie that is neither immersive nor engaging.  It sadly becomes a cliff notes version of Burroughs’ original story, stripped down of actual originality in order to appeal to all audiences, and appealing to none in the end.

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“Did I not tell you he could jump!”

But, does this reflect badly on the original novels themselves?  I don’t believe so.  John Carter of Mars has been around for over a hundred years now and will continue to stick around long after.  And the movie itself could have been a lot worse than it is.  It doesn’t exploit the novels in a bad way; it’s not even that bad of a film overall.  It’s just a disappointment in the end.  A great film could have come out of this had a more creative vision been behind it.  Sadly, John Carter could not escape the fact that too many years had passed the story by, and everything that it had pioneered had already become normalized in other works of science fiction.  By the time this movie came out, it had nothing original left to add.  That’s not to say something new and interesting could have been done with it.  By playing it safe, Disney spoiled any chance of actually bringing John Carter back to relevance again in it’s second century of existence.  What I think they should of done is take the same route they took with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ other famous creation, Tarzan, and make an animated feature based on John Carter.    It probably would have retained more of Burroughs’ original vision of the character and the world he inhabits had they chosen that medium, but working in live action with the tools we have now is not unreasonable either.  Sadly, Disney was one and done with John Carter; scrapping plans for a trilogy and letting the rights revert back to the Burroughs’ estate, who can shop the story out to other studios now.  Still, it is admirable that Disney allowed for the movie to be made, given the long wait for the character.  Hopefully, we’ll get a better John Carter of Mars movie in the future.  For now, you can find it in any book store, and the stories remarkably hold up to today’s standards.  But, what this proves is that even earnest adaptations can go astray and it may be as a result of not knowing how to handle the story right, or trying to deal with it too delicately for it’s own good.  Time was not on John Carter‘s side, but a failed movie shouldn’t be an indicator of a flawed story.  John Carter still stands as a legend and hopefully his time will come again.

Off the Page – The Road

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There are few if any American authors today who are as influential as Cormac McCarthy. And even fewer are as popular with Hollywood filmmakers at this moment.  The now octogenarian writer has been actively writing since the 1960’s and has published a series of highly acclaimed novels over the years. A few of these have especially drawn the attention of some high profile film producers, who are drawn to McCarthy’s very unique sense of storytelling.  Working mostly in the Western and Southern Gothic genres, McCarthy’s novels often deal with the loss of the American frontier and the plights of the isolated rugged individual dealing with the growing modern world. His novels are often bleak and are not usually known for having a happy ending.  In fact, another characteristic of McCarthy’s writing is the lack of traditional beginnings and endings, as if the story just plops the reader into the middle of an already unravelling plot.  But, what really makes McCarthy a favorite amongst readers are his vivid characterizations.  McCarthy says more about his characters in just a few short words than more authors do in an entire chapter, and he has created some of the most interesting character dynamics we’ve seen in modern literature.  While his stories are grim, they are nevertheless captivating, and they have rightly helped underline the definition of the modern Western narrative. And of course, when your novels are popular in print, they are almost certainly destined for a trip to the big screen, whether or not that’s a good thing.

Luckily for Mr. McCarthay, his novels have largely been treated respectfully when adapted for the cinema. Actor and director Billy Bob Thornton was the first to take a chance on a McCarthay novel, with his movie version All the Pretty Horses (2000), which tackled the first in what has been dubbed McCarthay’s “Border Trilogy.”  Unfortunately, despite critical acclaim, the movie didn’t do well enough at the box office to justify completing the rest of the trilogy, and the remaining novels, The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998) have yet to be adapted.   But in a few short years, Cormac McCarthy would explode onto the Hollywood landscape in a big way when the Coen Brothers decided to bring his 2005 five novel No Country for Old Men to the big screen. The end result was a huge success, performing well at the box office and winning all sorts of awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture of 2007.  Suddenly the author was in high demand, and the rights to his next novel was quickly scooped up. Surprisingly, McCarthay’s follow up was a complete departure in terms of genre. Instead of staying true to his Western roots, McCarthay decided to tackle a post-apocalyptic world with his 2006 novel, The Road.  But even despite this change in genre, McCarthay’s writing style remained true to form and The Road became the author’s most successful book to date, winning even the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.  To bring the novel to life, rights holders The Weinstein Company tapped Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat, whose 2005 film The Proposition became an instant modern Western classic for many filmgoers, and a perfect indication to what was needed to bring The Road to life.  While hype was strong for the movie, the end result was sadly mixed, and in this Off the Page article, I will explain how even well intentioned and faithful book adaptations can go astray.

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“God never spoke.”

One of the biggest challenges in adapting a novel is to decide what needs to make it into the film, and what can be left out.   This is not as difficult as you would think. Oftentimes, it’s just about finding the central element and focusing on it to drive the story along, whether it be a character or a McGuffin device.  Other things like subplots and character details can often be minimalized without damaging the effectiveness of the story.  McCarthay’s The Road is especially challenging in this sense, because of the way McCarthay writes. His novel is told entirely from the perspective of two characters, a father referred to only as The Man (played in the movie by Viggo Mortensen) and his son known only as The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee).  And telling the story only from their point of view limits an element that helps to make translations to the big screen easier for the filmmaker which is the perspective.  In The Road, we witness an account of a cataclysmic event on Earth, but without the why and the where.  McCarthay never states what caused the sudden destruction of the planet’s environment (some readers theorize an asteroid strike or a supervolcano eruption), and his narrative is far more focused on the aftermath. But even still, McCarthay is scarce on details, with his writing style instead focused on the thoughts and actions of the present in these character’s lives.  This works amazingly well on the page, giving the reader a very “in the moment” reaction to the horrors that the characters encounter, but it also makes the transition all the more difficult.  A filmmaker needs to have a sense of place from the page in order to make it come alive for audiences.  When you have a writer who is purposefully vague in his descriptions, it tends to leave the filmmaker in an awkward position of trying to figure out what’s being seen and if that lives up to the author’s intent.

Now thankfully for John Hillcoat, the author is still present and has been helpful in the past consulting on adaptations of his work.  No doubt the visualization of The Road meets the author’s standards, but even still, McCarthay is not the only one who holds up high standards over the look of his settings. The enormous popularity of The Road has also made its readers especially judgmental about how the film should appear. The unfortunate by product of McCarthay’s intentionally vague sense of place is that it has opened up infinite possibilities in people’s minds about what the settings should look like.  The only consistencies throughout are images of vast expanses of fire-ravaged woodlands, open fields devoid of vegetation now covered in ash, ghost towns devoid of activity, and the final destination being a rocky, coastal beach against a tumultuous ocean.  McCarthay makes all these places memorably haunting, but they could also be located anywhere in the world.  I think the only certainty is that it’s set in the Western United States, or what’s left of it after the cataclysm.  When I read the novel for myself, I had the image in my mind that the characters were making their  way across my home state of Oregon, because most of what McCarthay describes coincides with a lot of the rural scenery that I’ve benergy familiar with growing up there, at least in a pristine and alive state (especially the coastline).  This was further reinforced by the movie, which indeed shot significant parts of the film on location in Oregon.  But, I’m sure other readers from other parts of the country imagined something entirely different, and probably closer to home, and this is the dilemma that director Hillcoat had to face.

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“I told the boy when you dream about bad things happening, it means you’re still fighting and you’re still alive.”

I think the most mixed result of Hillcoat’s adaptation of the novel is with it’s visuals.  For the most part, the movie does a commendable job of bringing the novel to life, particularly in imagining the desolate wastelands that the characters must cross. But, it’s also here that the movie has some of its shortcomings, and that’s a result of its adherence to the source material. Cormac McCarthay only allows for certain details in his account of the settings, which limits what Hillcoat is able to visualize and it opens up the risky challenge of trying to expand upon the text.  Director Hillcoat works at his best with smaller settings that come vividly out of the book, like the macabre horror house of ranging cannibal hunters or the clean and sterile  safe haven of the storm shelter bunker.  But other moments feel out of place, or not quite up to the scale that was presented on the page.  Whether it was due to budget constraints or not, some of the larger set pieces feel surprisingly small in the movie.  A search through a shipwreck from the novel is almost non-existent in the film.  But most of this is the result of the risks you take when adapting a novel to the big screen.  Hillcoat may have had to lose some of the novel’s most memorable set pieces in service of the story, but it was in order to make the ones that matter most stand out all the more prominently.  Hillcoat also ran the risk of going too far with the visuals, making the world he was depicting feel too visually striking, which would have looked artificial as a result.  Thankfully, his gritty style was perfectly suited, as the movie feels very true to the overwhelmingly bleak landscape of the novel, with grey and brown tones dominating every frame.  Some of it is quite oppressive, giving the viewer a very realistic sense of what a dying world would look like.

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“Do you ever wish you would die?”

“No.  It’s foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these.”

I think where John Hillcoat succeeded the most, and may have even bettered the novel, was in his depictions of the main characters. Translating Cormac McCarthay characters can be a daunting task, because they are entirely of their own world, and are so defined by the way McCarthay writes them. For an actor to make these characters work, they must have a good sense of Cormac McCarthay’s intentions for the characterizations are and make it feel natural. These characters often have to live by their own code and exist outside of the what society has set out for them. This is made even trickier by the thinly detailed characters we get in The Road, who exist without names or backstories.  Given these limitations, it’s incredible that the characters work as well as they do in the film.  The pain of everyday life that McCarthay describes in his book is read completely on the faces of the actors, and they manage to believably live in this gritty, dangerous world.  Viggo Mortensen feels especially right at place in this movie, given the method actor’s proclivity for delving completely into character. He pulls off the disheveled look much better than most actor’s would have.  Same with Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose character may have been even harder to believably portray based on how he is in the book. But what the movie does best is to bring the minor characters to life.  John Hilcoat manages to make these briefly seen characters work as highlights in the movie by casting them perfectly. The likes of great character actors such as Guy Pearce, Garret Dillahunt, and Michael K. Williams lend great support, while at the same time disappearing into the fabric of the film. But, even they are overshadowed by an unrecognizable Robert Duvall in a very memorable role as the Old Man. The already blessed cast is made even better by the presence of the legendary actor, who makes this minor character in the novel shine bright, and exceed what was on written on the page.

But, if there was a place where the translation suffered the most between the novel and the movie, it would be in the story itself.  And it’s primarily in how John Hillcoat tries to force the elegance and simplicity of McCarthay’s writing into the film’s screenplay.   The movie does fine with the script for the most part, but because McCarthay’s novel is defined by long dialogues between the Man and the Boy, it unfortunately leads to long talky exhanges in the movie, which kind of gets distracting after a while.  Thankfully, most of the things said are interesting, but you also get the sense that the less said between the two might carry more impact.  Silence is the best asset of the story, given the empiness of the setting, so trying to include a lot of dialogue works against the movie ultimately.  What also becomes problematic is Hillcoat’s attempts to depict the internal struggles going on in the character’s psyche, which is presented in the film through voice-over narration.  This is always one of the big cliches in movie adaptations of famous books, as the filmmakers try to spell out everything from the text that can’t be explained in the dialogue.  The unfortunate side effect is that it exposes the film’s literary roots and takes the viewer out of the immediacy of the setting.  I for one think the movie would have been better off trying to leave the McCarthay prose out, and instead let the story drive itself along.  There’s still enough said by the characters and events that take place that still bears the mark of the author’s style.  Sometimes it just becomes a product of a director trying to be faithful to a fault with the source material.  The movie isn’t spoiled by such decisions, but it does encumber what could have been a real game-changing film, and instead just makes it about average as film adaptations go.

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“You have to keep carrying the fire.”

While far from perfect, John Hillcoat’s film adaptation of The Road is still a commendable effort.  It’s perhaps that the reputation of the novel may have overwhelmed any possibility of this movie ever becoming just as popular.  Hillcoat is risk taker as a filmmaker, but perhaps he played things too safely with Cormac McCarthay’s masterpiece and made a movie that was passable but unremarkable.  Maybe separated from its place in time, the movie will eventually find an audience.  Hell, if something cataclysmic like this does happen, Hillcoat’s bleak vision of the apocalypse could even become more prophetic then the book. But even still, I’d say that if you want to see a perfect cinematic translation of McCarthay’s writing, you’re better off with No Country for Old Men. The Road, in the end, is a perfect example of taking a well intentioned approach to cinematic adaptation and coming up with something just ordinary.  It’s not a bad film, but it won’t replace the novel in anyone’s eyes either.  Most literary adaptations usually fall under this category, especially the ones that try to take on an acclaimed source.   Its the result of just giving enough thought into the adaptation of the material, while at the same time avoiding any risks.  Hillcoat took enough risks to avoid failure, but the movie just feels too encumbered by avenues not taken.  At least it did show the value of Cormac McCarthay’s status as a writer.  His library of work is still untapped for the most part, and is just waiting for capable filmmakers to bring them to life. The best thing that can be said about the movie The Road is that it took probably the riskiest of McCarthay novels and did something respectful with it, which hopefully sets a good standard for any other adaptations in the future.

Off the Page – The Shining

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You’ve heard the old adage about movies adapted from other material; that the book was better.  In many case that is almost certainly true.  Books and movies live by different rules, and when the story itself is highly complex, it’s more than likely that a book will more satisfactorily accomplish what the story needs to do.  With books, the reader return to a story through multiple sittings, and absorb all of the material at their own leisure.  Movies on the other hand have to accomplish the same feat, but within an unyielding two hour time frame; three hours if they’re lucky.  To make this happen, the filmmaker has to do the drastic move of cutting or just outright changing whole pieces of the story in order to make it fit within the confines of it’s run-time.  Some things are easy to get rid of, like a character’s inner monologue, but then again, a filmmaker also runs the risk of changing the wrong things, and completely changing the intent of the story overall.  It’s a tricky tightrope for filmmakers to accomplish, and yet adaptations have dominated the Hollywood landscape since the very beginning.  Indeed, it seems like today that Hollywood is more likely to adapt an already proven bestselling title rather than come up with something completely original.  But, on the other hand, there are novels that lend themselves perfectly over to film and one hopes that it falls into the hands of the right filmmaker.

Given all this, I have decided to begin a new series of articles where I look at some of the more famous translations between the written word and the big screen.  With these articles I hope to showcase the many interesting ways that stories evolve between the two mediums.  Also, to make this series a little more interesting, I will also be reading the source novels beforehand as well as watching, or re-watching the movies.  Primarily, I want to read books that I haven’t read before and see how much it and the movie line up together.  More than likely the books I read will be from movies that I have already seen, but there might be cases in future articles where I will be going into both cold, which might give me a very different reaction to both altogether.  For the most part, I just want to use this as an incentive to get me reading more books and allow me to share my thoughts on both with you the reader, in the hopes that it will help you see the value in each, and how the process of adaptation works.   For this inaugural article, I took it upon myself to look at an appropriately dark and Gothic story that fits very well the mood of this Halloween season.  It’s Stephen King’s 1978 classic, The Shining, which of course was turned into an equally renowned 1980 film adaptation of the same name directed by Stanley Kubrick.  The reason why I chose to look at these two is because of the differences between the two; differences of which created a rift between the filmmaker and the author.  Did Kubrick change too much of King’s novel?  Did he change enough to make the film better or less than the novel?  Is the book indeed better than the movie?  After reading both the novel and re-watching the movie, the results surprisingly are more complicated than you’d expect.

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“Some places are like people; some shine and some don’t.”

The truth is that both are brilliant pieces of work in their own right, though neither will give you the entirely same experience of the other.  They are like two different views of the same events, told in their own author’s particular style.  Kubrick removes some of King’s more famous supernatural elements, while at the same time adding some of his own.  And while that may tick off some King purists, many people have actually seen Kubrick’s additions as improvements.  I won’t lie and say that during my read of the novel, I was actually looking for those famous moments from the movie, and was just a bit let down when they didn’t appear.  But, that’s not to say that the book itself let me down.  There was a lot of things that the novel itself had that made me wish they were in the movie.  In particular, Stephen King conveys a lot more of the evil presence of the Overlook Hotel in his novel, with vivid descriptions of all the noises and disembodied voices that haunt the main characters throughout the story.  It’s unfortunate that stuff like that gets lost in translation, but at the same time, you can easily see why Kubrick made the changes he did.  Kubrick himself was very selective with his choices of projects, and usually he was more inclined to work outside the Hollywood system and make movies with risque themes and content.  But, with King’s novel, this became a rare case where Kubrick could take on a commercially proven property and still satisfy his artistic tastes.  And indeed, Kubrick’s mark is all over the finished film, creating a truly memorable and chilling adaptation of the novel.

Unfortunately, one of the film’s biggest detractors was Stephen King himself.  He didn’t like Kubrick’s version of his story at all and for many years he dismissed the project as a perversion of his novel.  Years later, King would himself undertake an adaptation in a three part miniseries made for TV.  The 1997 miniseries starred Steven Weber of Wings fame and it stuck much closer to King’s original vision.  Though King himself was satisfied, audiences were not, and the miniseries was critically panned.  The unfortunate thing for Stephen King was the fact that Kubrick’s movie had become such a beloved classic overtime, with many of the most memorable moments becoming ingrained in our pop culture.  Stephen King may have satisfied his own artistic intent, but he failed to recognize the artistry that Kubrick had put into his adaptation, and King’s more standard looking miniseries failed to resonate with it’s visuals.  But that’s not to say that Stephen King can’t tell the story better than Kubrick.  Kubrick is a visual artist, and can create images through the lens of a camera that will stick with you forever.  But Kubrick is only building upon the foundation that King had laid out for him.  What King is brilliant at is painting an image in the mind’s eye, and indeed, much of the strength of the novel is the remarkably vivid atmosphere.  King also lays out the internal struggles within the characters, giving the reader a deeper understanding of the character’s motivations.  Kubrick in turn has to work through shortcuts and reliance on his actors to achieve the same, which does work remarkably well.  In time, King began to understand Kubrick’s impact, and though he still retains reservations about it, he nevertheless now respects Kubrick’s work.

shining twins

“Come play with us Danny.”

In the end, you can watch one and read the other, and still get a satisfying experience.  Both give their audience a wonderfully disturbing descent into darkness, and both accomplish the feat of just being the most epic of ghost stories.  Essentially, all of the elements that matter are present in both.  You’ve got the Torrence family snowbound in the ominous Overlook Hotel during the winter, as they all try to keep themselves from going insane due to the isolation and the fact that the Hotel is also haunted.  The ghosts are mostly the same, though there are exclusions and inclusions of note, and the descent into madness by Jack Torrence (a memorable performance by Jack Nicholson) is roughly about the same.  Where the two depart the most is in how much of an influence the Hotel is having on it’s characters.  In the novel, the Overlook Hotel itself is a sentient entity, infecting the minds of it’s inhabitants, and leading them towards committing heinous acts, thereby collecting more souls into it’s collective body.  Though King never explains how the Hotel came to have a mind of it’s own, it nevertheless comes across in a very vivid way, especially when it takes control of Jack’s mind and leads him towards murdering his family.  We can see that same influence also take hold of Jack’s wife Wendy and his son Danny, as they are tested by the Hotel’s illusions as well.  Kubrick’s movie hints at this, but never overtly states that it’s the Hotel itself that is making Jack turn murderous.  Instead, Kubrick makes Jack much more responsible for his own murderous intent, which diminishes the impact of the evil presence of the hotel, but makes Jack a more frightening character as a result.  It’s one of the many cases where something that’s lost at one point in the story is gained somewhere else.

For the most part, Kubrick makes the Overlook Hotel more of a standard haunted house rather than a collective body of evil power working it’s magic on others.  In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this could be a move that can otherwise miss the mark of the original story entirely.  Thankfully, whenever Kubrick made a change in the story, it was for all the right reasons.  Notably, he removes some of King’s sillier attempts at scares, like party favors and balloons appearing in the elevator and a fire hose turning into a snake, and replaces them with some truly horrific images, like the elevator full of blood.  He also gives the different ghost of the Hotel much more defined personalities, thanks to some very chilling performances.  British actor Phillip Stone in particular is a standout as the deeply sinister Delbert Grady in what is probably the movie’s most chilling scene. Kubrick also added the presence of Grady’s murdered daughters, standing creepily at the end of a long hall in what has since become one of the most iconic images in movie history.  The “All work and no play” scene was also an addition, and it represents probably Kubrick’s biggest departure from the book, as it makes Jack more self aware of his own murderous intent.  By doing this, Kubrick makes Jack a much more frightening villain; something that Jack Nicholson plays up with amazing gusto in his performance.  When the results work this well, it’s easy to see why many people look to the film as their favorite version of the story.

shining jack

“Here’s Johnny!!”

But if there is something missing in Kubrick’s film, it’s the slow burn to that moment of psychological breakdown.  The movie is limited by it’s runtime, and even at nearly 2 and 1/2 hours long, it still has to cram in a lot.  King’s novel is allowed more time to establish the history of the Torrence family and show how things have gotten to the state that it’s at.  By showing all this, he makes Jack’s descent feel more natural, and helps the reader get a better sense of how easily he’s taken in by the hotel.  Danny Torrence is also better defined in the novel, as the book also works as a coming of age tale for the gifted boy.  In the movie, the character of Danny is limited by how well he is played by the actor, and though young Danny Lloyd does a fine job with the role, he’s still is limited to the common inexperience that you see in most child actors; mainly reacting instead of actually acting.   The relationships between father, son and mother make up the bulk of the novel and King makes it clear how the bonds of family is the primary theme of his novel.  Kubrick’s movie removes much of the slow build-up and instead pushes us into the darkness much quicker, which is exactly what helps to keep the pacing more taught on the big screen.  It’s not until the last half that the book and the movie flow along a more parallel path, and at this point it’s clear why both versions took the needed routes that they did.  Movies need to be more visceral and to the point, while novels can round out the details, and both versions of The Shining illustrate this difference very clearly.

Probably the thing that separates the two artists the most is their outlook on the stories and characters, especially with regards to where they leave off.  Stephen King puts his characters through a lot of darkness, but ultimately they make it out triumphant, having overcome evil.  This is true in The Shining as Danny and his mother escape the Hotel as it explodes due to an explosion from it’s basement boiler, taking the possessed Jack and all the evil spirits down with it.  The heroes live; the villains die.  Kubrick on the other hand doesn’t let things end on such a positive note.  Danny and Wendy still escape, but not without sacrifice.  Dick Hallorran, the Overlook’s cook, arrives to save the family thanks to a telepathic connection between him and Danny, and he escapes with the two, helping them down the mountain.  Played by Scatman Crothers in the movie, the same character does not make it out alive, instead falling victim to an ax in the stomach from Jack, who was hiding in the shadows.  Still his sacrifice gives Wendy and Danny a way out, but it also gives the movie a surprising twist that I don’t think any reader or viewer saw coming.  Also, instead of the movie ending with the Hotel destroyed, Kubrick instead takes the conclusion outside into the icy bleakness of a frozen garden.  There Danny eludes Jack, leaving the maniacal father to freeze to death.  The movie ends with Jack dead, but the Hotel still intact, leaving on a final image of a vintage photo of the Overlook Hotel.  The only difference is that Jack Torrence is now shown in the same photograph, having now joined all the other souls that have come before him.  It’s one of the only indicators of King’s idea of the evil presence of the Hotel, and Kubrick leaves his audience with the chilling conclusion that states that the Overlook has added to it’s collection and is lying in wait for the next one to come.  Where King sees a light at the end of the tunnel, Kubrick only sees more tunnel.

shining danny


So, having looked at both, it’s clear that both stand on their own merits.  It’s hard to tell if one has more worth than the other.  Since I was already very familiar with the film by Kubrick, my reaction to the novel may have been a little muted.  I did find the slow deterioration of Jack Torrence’s psyche fascinating to read, especially when you learn read the story through the character’s own perspective.  But at the same time, I already knew where the story was going, even though the road to the end deviated somewhat from what I was expecting.  Overall, if some of you are approaching the story of The Shining entirely cold, than I can tell you that either format will still give you a satisfactory experience.  Fundamentally, The Shining is just a solid story from beginning to end, and though Stephen King may have found the changes troublesome, he should still see it as a true honor that an artist like Stanley Kubrick managed to bring the story to the big screen in such a grand and visceral way.  Let’s face it, there are some things that translate well into celluloid, and other things that should just remain on the page (living hedge animals, for example).  Kubrick’s changes were risky, but they still retain the atmosphere of King’s novel and fit well within the story.  Some of them may even be seen as improvements, like the vivid portrayals of the ghosts and the spookier imagery.  But, overall, comparing the two only makes you appreciate both in the end.  It’s one of the rare examples of both pieces being brilliant works of art, while still remaining markedly different.  In future installments of this series, the same may not be true as either the book will clearly be better or the movie may be the greater of the two.  In this case, you won’t find a better spooky tale to entertain you this Halloween season than The Shining.